The right not to get caught


For @monadic, who forgot this was happening, and @stephenbonner who asked for a blog post summarising events – a short write up of last Friday’s Open Rights Group event, ‘resisting the all seeing eye’, featuring Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.

Things got off to a fairly predictable start for anybody who follows Cory’s and Charlie’s blogs and other postings. I’ve not got around to reading Little Brother yet, but that seems to be where Cory’s head still is. Charlie has been immersing himself in the next part of his Merchant Princes series, so it was no surprise to hear him making references to historical architecture and social norms. This was perhaps one of the key take away points of the evening – the contemporary concept of privacy hasn’t been around that long, being mostly a middle class 20th century contrivance, so should we be really all that shocked/bothered that the concept is being changed as new social norms emerge?

As the introductions wound up Cory touched upon the futility (and obnoxiousness) of web filtering, particularly in schools. This resounds for me also in the enterprise context; on the one hand filtering seems to have gotten more and more in the way of doing business, but on the other hand it is becoming increasingly futile as people bring to work WWAN connected netbooks and phones. There were two choice examples of kids hacking around filtering; 1) they would search for ‘proxy’ and then jump to page 75 of the results – no network administrator would bother to go to page 75, 2) kids would pick a random blog with an open comments system and use that for chat. Cory said that we should do more to teach kids about this stuff, then Charlie said we should do more to teach politicians about this stuff, and then the audience participation started…

One of the more interesting questions was whether we would see ‘the end of hypocracy’ – that openness in all areas of life, including politics, would prevent politicians (and government) from behaving badly. Cory gave some examples of why this doesn’t appear to be working, citing 1) the home secretary choosing to upgrade cannabis despite her own confession to using it and advice from the government chief scientist and 2) his own recent writing on how transparency means nothing without justice. For me this raised interesting questions about how justice can be returned to society, and whether society’s expectations around politicians are reasonable? A follow on point was made that it would become increasingly hard to enter politics with a clean sheet, and that this might encourage political dynasties where kids are brought up to enter office, isolated from real life and experience. Along with politics becoming a career (entered in some way directly from higher education) rather than a calling (entered later on in life having gained experience elsewhere) – this could clearly be a problem. What does it take for the public to accept that politicians have some dirty laundry too?

Clearly there was an expectation in the room that issues around privacy should be somewhere on the political agenda. The question I never got around to asking was ‘what will it take for these issues to find their way onto a mainstream manifesto?’. Robin Wilton recently observed some accidental alignment between opposition party proposals and the pro privacy lobby; but here I’m tempted to invoke the corollary to ‘never blame on malice that which can be explained by incompetence’, which is ‘never ascribe to competence that which can be explained by good luck’. Getting back to the points on education, the underlying problem here is that nobody understands this except the geeks, and so nobody cares except the geeks – that’s just not enough votes.

Both Cory and Charlie were quite down on the tabloid press, ‘the red tops’, and their role in steering public opinion, particularly the link between profit and fear mongering. This was linked back to politicians being trapped in a vice over things like terrorist threat warnings – nothing can ever be relaxed or reversed, as then blame can be ascribed. To avoid blame do nothing. On the way home I read Bob Blakley’s piece where he comes up with ‘Blakley’s Law‘,  to describe what’s going on here (with specific reference to the porkalypse) – “Every public alert system’s status indicator rises until it reaches its disaster imminent setting and remains at that setting until it is retired from service.”. I know from my time in the military that it’s impossible to maintain states of high alert for more than a few days, and even raised awareness becomes tired in a matter of weeks. It is just ridiculous that we still hear announcements all the time along the lines of ‘in these times of heightened alert (following 9/11, which happened over 7 years ago) blah blah blah’. Of course those announcements are just another part of the state sponsored apparatus of fear/control, in which the press are complicit in playing along rather than calling them out. At least we have Craig Murray.

Aggregation of personal data was a recurrent theme. Clearly the problem isn’t that people surrender nuggets of personal information for specific time bound purposes, but that those nuggets end up sitting around in perpetuity on (public) databases where they can be aggregated and mined (for purposes that may be against the individuals wishes or best interests). Charlie suggested that it would be nice to have a system where data is accessible when it’s less than 2 years old (whilst still current) and more than 100 years old (when the individual is likely dead, but the historians might care). One of the audience pointed out that this sounded like an elaborate DRM scheme, which got Cory going on about the real evils of DRM being in hardware that is outside the control of the user/owner – well dodged that man – you should be in politics ;-) When asked about pratical measures both Cory and Charlie talked a lot about browsers, a little about CCTV, and a bit about RFID.

The next really interesting area for debate was privacy around DNA, and Charlie picked up the batton pointing out that full genome sequencing is getting cheap very quickly. He then went on to explore ‘shotgun sequencing’ that’s going on for ocean samples, and could also be applied to crime scenes. The trip into the future ended with a hypothetical toothbrush that could identity infections before they became symptomatic. Clealy this could have tremendous benefit for public (and individual) health; and also disasterous consequences for health insurance premiums etc. It’s here that we get to the heart of the issue – privacy in this context is about not wanting to surrender or have used against me information that might make me worse off – like that I committed a crime (e.g. speeding) or have genes that might make me a higher risk. Yet at the same time I don’t want speeding motorists to run down my kids, or pay for high risk customers to be using the same life insurance company as me. I want technology to make my life safer and less costly, I don’t want technology to make my life subject to state interference and more expensive – two sides of the same coin.

This brings us to some of the closing points… there is a social contract that exists between us as individuals, between us and commercial entities, and between us and the state. Technology is causing changes to that social contract – changes that we hope will benefit more than they harm. As we look to younger generations, they are being indoctrinated into accepting some of those changes, but often without open and fair debate about what the alternatives might be. Policy shapes the social contract, and the social contract shapes policy; but participants in both policy formulation and engagement in the broader social contract need to be informed of the issues.

Endnote – On the way home I fired an email to Charlie pointing him to Jerry Fishenden’s work in this area. The weekend also brought us a great post from Ben Laurie on the relationship between privacy and social networks.

9 Responses to “The right not to get caught”

  1. 1 alexis

    The problem is that while it is usually fairly obvious when something is public, it is not clear when something is private.

    It’s tempting to construct a ‘value free’ notion of privacy, e.g. “every thing is private, until it is public”. This is problematic when a *thing* means a ‘thing in the world’ (eg a digital asset), as opposed to for example ‘an idea in my head’. Being ‘a thing in the world’ is kind of necessary for us to care about it, and requires the thing to persist, which means it has to have an existence independent of the person to whom it is allegedly private. For example it might be stored on disk. But as soon as we accept that things have a persistent existence independent of persons, then we have to make value judgements such as: who owns a photograph with a policeman in the background. Recent debate only provides evidence for the open ended nature of these judgements and the tendency of the judgements to favour those in power. The other examples that you provide above e.g. DNA, further corroborate this point.

    If we cannot then provide a definition of privacy without bringing in value judgements, then the debate has to focus on the values themselves.

    – the right to not be harassed and scrutinised
    – habeas corpus
    – the right to assembly
    – the right to a fair trial
    – no detention without trial
    – freedom of movement
    – the obligation of a public employee to the taxpayer

    These principles appear to be under threat and the focus on ‘privacy’ seems to me to be a complete distraction from this threat, which is comprehensive.


  2. 2 Chris Swan


    Many thanks for a thoughtful and thought provoking comment, which I think does a great job of recentering the debate. It looks like it was a shame you missed the event.

    You’re right that this is about values, though I’m not sure that the focus on ‘privacy’ is altogether a distraction. The values that you’re concerned about are embodied into the social contract, and should be encoded into policy. What we’re seeing however is too much encoding error between that social contract and policy. Policy in the last decade has been obsessively focussed on low probability, high risk events – the types of things that make the news, and also the types of things that the mushy stuff between our ears is terrible at dealing with rationally. One of my favourite Charlie comments of the evening was ‘if the US government really cared about civilian deaths post 9/11 then we would have had the “war on traffic”‘.

    Another key point that I should have done a better job of capturing is the problem of asymmetry, which I think is often closely coupled with a sense of injustice. Perhaps the main asymmetry here is the ‘right not to get caught’ versus the ‘right to be corrupt’.

    A fitting example is the abuse of stop and search powers. Recent news revealing statistics ( or would indicate that the powers are being used disproportionately, so where’s the comeback? Sadly I haven’t even seen a decent analysis of this. The mainstream media shot straight for the headline grabbing big numbers, and the blogs I read put their own twist on it; but lets try scratching the surface of this one. Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs aka ‘plastic policemen’) have no stop and search powers EXCEPT under anti terrorism law – to a man who only has a hammer… How many of those 117,000 were PCSOs rather than regular PCs? Who thought that it wasn’t OK for PCSO’s to stop and search regular citizens, but that it was OK for them to take on ‘suspected terrorists’? Surely common sense here should say that anybody with limited powers and training should be calling in the heavy mob if they think they’ve come across a ‘suspected terrorist’ rather than getting on with things themselves. If I’m a regular citizen who thinks they have been abused by a PCSO by being recategorized as a ‘suspected terrorist’ then what right of recourse do I have? None – then that’s a painful asymmetry. I could write much the same about RIPA – a law brought in to protect us from the demons of terrorism and paedophilia, and now in use to police litter offenses and potentially fraudulent school applications. Again the real problem is that nobody is held to account for the abuse, cultivating the sense of injustice.

    So, what are we regular citizens to do about getting the asymmetries rebalanced? Taking to the streets in protest looks like an increasingly bad idea ( Perhaps we need our own party, like the Pirate party in Sweden ( Only it would get nowhere in the UK as we have see-saw politics (and all the playground paraphernalia that goes along with it) rather than proportional representation.

  3. 3 Chris Swan

    A great comment by Ian on asymmetry over at a Register article on ID cards (

    Any new law should only ever be allowed to be passed if it fills the criteria that MPs would also allow it to effect them equally and hence agree to the counter that effects them also. Here’s some examples:

    Proposed law: The government should be able to monitor every citizen’s e-mails, texts and phones
    Check of validity: The government should allow citizens to monitor all MPs e-mails, texts and phone calls.

    Proposed law: All citizens should have their data stored on a government held DNA database
    Check of validity: All MPs should have their data stored on a publicly accessible DNA database

    Proposed law: The government should be able to define what citizens can and can’t do in the bedroom in private
    Check of validity: Citizens should be able to define what MPs can and can’t do in the bedroom in private

    You see how that works? It’s called fairness. Any MP that can’t accept the counter should also not vote for the former. Any MP that votes for the former but wont accept the counter should be removed from office due to the fact it means they are unable to do their job objectively.

  4. 4 Chris Swan

    My colleague Andy just pointed out that in the US privacy is an 18th century concept embodied into the 4th amendment (

    Picking on this thread a little makes me wonder if s44 is our modern day equivalent of writs of assistance ( Since history has that habit of repeating itself I wonder what happened in 1819 to stop this in the UK?

  5. 5 alexis

    The fourth amendment appears to derive from property law which is fine until you run into the problem that for digital assets, property is a capability. When something can be infinitely copied for free, it becomes hard to track which copies are ‘mine’ (cf. endless discussion about online music distribution and DRMist crackpottery). I can assert ownership of a digital asset by signing and encrypting it but this is a capability (see eg Capabilities can be transferred but I am not sure if we as a society are jurisprudentially able to grok this.

    Re ‘equality’. Nice idea but thereby hangs centuries of moral philosophy debate:

    Treating people equally is fine except when they are not equal in fact, requiring an analysis of essential vs other forms of equality, which may lead one into an infinite pararational loop. But +1 to the Reg. article’s suggestion which at least beats about the right bush. It’s your assymmetry problem again. Innit.

  6. 6 Chris Swan

    Maybe veering off a bit, but @jobsworth just highlighted some more bad behavior – this time the European Parliament stacking the decks in favour of established media companies –

    This begs the question of ‘why do politicians so willingly align themselves with legacy business models?’. The answer is obvious – they’re the people who have the money, right now (and can make party contributions, bringing us back to the right to be corrupt); but is nobody in this for the long haul? Must we have overreaction then (oft too late) repeal rather than consideration and appropriate action?

  7. 7 alexis

    No it’s because they have the power. The money is a nice side effect. As people used to say: it’s a way of keeping score.

    In the case of digital rights, replace “Knowledge is power” with “Power is ignorance”.

  8. 8 Chris Swan

    There’s a video of the event now up at Cory’s blog –

  1. 1 Going beyond privacy |

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